It’s never easy to ask someone to give back a gift. Last year, politicians asked Berliners to do exactly that with Tempelhof, the former airport turned much loved communal area.
Famous as the lifeline for West Berlin during the cold war, Tempelhof’s airfield had become the German capital’s biggest park. Since it was turned over to the public in May 2010, the site has been immensely popular with families, joggers, rollerbladers, kite-flyers, wind-karters, urban gardeners, yoga enthusiasts, hipsters and layabouts; smoke rises in summer from the abundance of barbecues. But there was always a niggling suspicion that the fun couldn’t last – that Tempelhof’s unique status as a hugely valuable piece of land essentially given over to the average picnicking Berliner was too good to be true.
“No other city would treat itself to such a crown jewel [of open space],” said Ingo Gräning of Tempelhof Projekt, the state company running the site, as he surveyed the runways and frostbitten green from the terminal roof. “There’s 300 hectares there. Monaco is 200.”
‘No other city would allow itself such a crown jewel of public space’ … Tempelhof park with the air traffic control tower in the background. Photograph: Ciarán Fahey
The last three aeroplanes flew out of Tempelhof in November 2008, a month after the airport’s official closure. The buildings, however, have mostly remained in some form of use. The 72m radar tower is still used by the German army to monitor flight traffic. And the remarkable Nazi-era terminal, 300,000 sq m including hangars that curve out 1.23km under a column-free roof – said to be the biggest protected building in the world – is mostly leased out. The biggest tenants? The Berlin police, who occupy some 46,000 sq m, around 15% of the total. (The Polizei have been tenants since 1951, when the US military, which took over the airport after the second world war, began renting out parts of the building.)
As well as the police, there is Berlin’s traffic control authority, the central lost property office, a kindergarten, a dancing school and one of the city’s oldest revue theatres – just some of more than 100 businesses and institutions that call the former airport home.
City planners wanted more, however. During local elections in 2011, plans were mooted for new commercial areas and offices, 4,700 homes and a large public library, the latter a pet project of former Berlin mayor Klaus Wowereit.
Planners promised they’d only build on 25% of the site, leaving 230 free hectares; politicians promised the new apartments would include affordable housing. (Continue reading)